3 Koreans face drug charges in China

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3 Koreans face drug charges in China

Three South Koreans face drug charges that could bring the death penalty in China, after allegedly trying to sell a massive amount of methamphetamine, according to Seoul government sources.

The trio - two men in their 40s and a third in his 60s - were recently arrested in China’s Yanbian region, bordering North Korea, a narcotics hot spot that has seen more than 900 people arrested on drug charges in the last year alone. Officials at the Korean consulate in Yanbian said Chinese police caught the men trying to sell 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of meth, and one of them was charged with holding an additional batch of 5.7 kilograms.

Possession of more than one kilogram of methamphetamine or heroin carries the possibility of a death sentence in China. In April, the country executed four Japanese drug dealers, and 90 of the 239 South Koreans serving drug-related jail terms overseas as of March are imprisoned in China, according to the National Police Agency and National Intelligence Service.

And many of them are arrested in Yanbian, the home of more than 800,000 ethnic Koreans and also China’s largest center of drug trafficking.

A large part of the drugs traded in the region are produced in the bordering North Korean province of Hamgyeong, and brought to China by ethnic Koreans living in the area. Ephedrine hydrochloride is manufactured in several areas of Yanbian, then brought to North Korea to be cooked into methamphetamine, then the finished product is returned to China for sale, national intelligence officials said.

This triangular trade is often funded by South Koreans, intelligence officials here say, making Korean-speakers targets for China’s drug investigators.

The three South Koreans who were caught this time also have histories of drug-related charges at home as well.

“They are most likely to have entered China for drug trading,” said one Seoul government official. “But we see a growing number of previously-clean South Koreans being involved in drug trading after their businesses flopped.”

The official said he interviewed a South Korean man jailed in China for drug trading, who used to run a restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan. The massive earthquake in 2008 destroyed his business and livelihood, and he said he was approached by ethnic Koreans in China to take part in drug trading.

According to the South Korean prisoner, North Koreans charge about 150 to 200 yuan ($22 to $29) per gram of drug to ethnic Koreans working as middlemen, who resell it with a profit margin of 200 to 400 percent. The more intense the government crackdown is, the pricier the drug becomes.

Chinese courts have so far shown little mercy to drug traffickers. The four Japanese drug dealers who were executed in April were caught trading only 1.25 to 5 kilograms of drug, and a South Korean surnamed Shin was also put to death in October 2001.

By Kang In-shik, Ye Young-joon [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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